Suicide is a major public health concerns, and the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the rate of suicides doesn’t peak during the holidays, but rather in the springtime, but it’s important to be mindful of the signs year-round.
To begin with, Meghan Renzi, a licensed clinical social worker who runs Therapy and Mindfulness Practices in Bethesda, Maryland, says that a feeling of cold numbness and losing interest in our passions — or even the basic activities of daily life — is a key indicator that something is very wrong.
“Watch for warning signs,” she cautions. “It is so important for people to know what to watch for when it comes to suicide risk factors [like] withdrawal from friends and family, feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in life, a decline in hygiene, abusing drugs or alcohol, hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness) or lack of sleep, loss of appetite, personality changes and increased feelings of apathy.”
Renzi says stigma is the greatest obstacle keeping people from the help they need. “Most of us have been programmed to feel shame when it comes to mental health issues. What if we felt open to share how we actually felt?” She says anyone who has been through depression and benefitted from therapy and/or medication can help the people in their lives by candidly sharing their experiences.
Destigmatizing mental health issues is a crucial part of getting people into care. As described by Dr. Leesha Ellis-Cox, a board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, suicidal feelings can come from isolated but catastrophic life events, like a job loss or romantic breakup, legal charges or the death of a loved one. These feelings can also be rooted in psychiatric and mood disorders that can be diagnosed and treated.
She says suicidal thoughts exist on a spectrum. “Some people have what we call passive suicidal ideation, where they may feel like a burden to their family and believe it would be easier to die but have no plan to try and end their life … Then there are those who have a plan of suicide [but no intent to act on the plan] […] Most risky are those who have a desire to end their life, a plan or plans, and are intending to act on that desire and carry out that plan.”
Though people may fear disclosing their suicidal thoughts and feelings might mean instant institutionalization, Ellis-Cox is quick to dispel that notion. “Suicidal thoughts in and of themselves do not always necessitate immediate psychiatric hospitalization, but they do indicate an immediate need for a licensed mental health professional to evaluate the individual to assess risk of harm, develop a safety plan if needed and further guide treatment.”
But prompting an ailing friend or loved one to seek that treatment often feels easier said than done — especially since there’s a fear that inviting a person to talk about suicide is like driving a pick-axe through a dam and releasing the floodwaters.
“Asking someone about whether or not they are contemplating suicide does not mean that you are somehow suggesting or encouraging them to kill themselves,” Ellis-Cox explains. “Many people may feel relieved at being given the opportunity to talk openly about their thoughts with someone who cares, so ask if you are concerned and then help them get help.”
It’s terrifying to hear someone we care about describe a desire to hurt themselves, so it can be tempting to simply dismiss their pain as dramatics. However, this tendency can be dangerous. “Take threats of suicide seriously,” Ellis-Cox says. “Please do not just assume that someone is attention-seeking or trying to be manipulative.”
She advises readers to stay connected with the young people in their lives and keep an open dialogue about mental health and wellness. “Bullying is a big deal for young people, especially cyberbullying through social media sites like Facebook and YouTube. We have media reports of very young children killing themselves because of bullying. Monitor your children and their social media accounts.”
Some young people are prone to commit self-harm (like cutting or burning their skin), and while it may seem like openly suicidal behavior, Ellis-Cox cautions that this isn’t necessarily true (the clinical term for it is non-suicidal self-injury) — however, it’s vital to get children who self-harm into the proper care (which isn’t, again, always hospitalization) immediately.
Julia Colangelo, a licensed clinical psychotherapist and social worker encourages people not to make assumptions about the kinds of people who are more susceptible to attempting suicide. “Suicide doesn’t discriminate,” she says. “No one can ever get inside the head or heart of someone who is suffering from suicidal ideation.” The best way to help people gripped by those feelings is to listen to them, honestly and unflinchingly, to remind them they are loved and cared about and encourage them to seek treatment.
If you’re looking for resources for helping a friend or loved one or trying to get information about treatment for yourself, you can turn to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling them at 1-800-273-8255.